Watch an Archaeologist Play the “Lithophone,” a Prehistoric Instrument That Let Ancient Musicians Play Real Classic Rock

Surely each of us hears more music in a day than the average prehistoric human being heard in a lifetime. Then again, it depends on the definition of "music": though what we listen to is undoubtedly more complex than what our distant ancestors listened to, our music descends from theirs just as we descend from them. And so it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that the musical instruments used in prehistoric times should sound vaguely familiar to us. Take, for instance, archaeologist and prehistoric music specialist Jean-Loup Ringot's performance on the semicircle of stones known as a lithophone, or "rock gong."

Lithophones, wrote Josh Jones on the instrument's last appearance here on Open Culture, "have been found all over the African continent, in South America, Australia, Azerbaijan, England, Hawaii, Iceland, India, and everywhere else prehistoric people lived. Not the cultural property of any one group, the rock gong came, rather, from a universal human insight into the natural sonic properties of stone."

A commenter on the video of Ringot playing the lithopone describes it as "reminiscent of the bonang," the collection of small gongs set on strings that constitutes one of the defining instruments of the traditional Javanese percussion ensemble known as gamelan.

Even if you've never heard of gamelan or bonang, the sound of the lithophone — and its resemblance to that of instruments used in other traditional musics — may well resonate with you, so to speak. The main difference comes out of the materials: the gongs, or kettles, of a bonang are made from bronze, iron, or mixtures of other metals, while the lithophone generates sound with only what would have been available to the Flintstones. The use of such a naturally abundant substance has, of course, inspired many a modern wag to Flintstonian quips about lithophone players as the first "rockers." Players of the real classic rock, in other words — not like all the junk that has come out in the last few millennia. But then, don't we all prefer the early stuff?

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Watch a Short 1967 Film That Imagines How We’d Live in 1999: Online Learning, Electronic Shopping, Flat Screen TVs & Much More

Nobody uses the word computerized anymore. Its disappearance owes not to the end of computerization itself, but to the process' near-completeness. Now that we all walk around with computers in our pockets (see also the fate of the word portable), we expect every aspect of life to involve computers in one way or another. But in 1967, the very idea of computers got people dreaming of the far-flung future, not least because most of them had never been near one, let alone brought one into their home. But for the Shore family, each and every phase of the day involves a computer: their "central home computer, which is secretary, librarian, banker, teacher, medical technician, bridge partner, and all-around servant in this house of tomorrow."

Tomorrow, in this case, means the year 1999. Today is 1967, when Philco-Ford (the car company having purchased the bankrupt radio and television manufacturer six years before) didn't just design and build this speculative "house of tomorrow," which made its debut on a television broadcast with Walter Cronkite, but produced a short film to show how the family of tomorrow would live in it. Year 1999 AD traces a day in the life of the Shores: astrophysicist Michael, who commutes to a distant laboratory to work on Mars colonization; "part-time homemaker" Karen, who spends the rest of the time at the pottery wheel; and eight-year-old James, who attends school only two mornings a week but gets the rest of his education in the home "learning center."

There James watches footage of the moon landing, plausible enough material for a history lesson in 1999 until you remember that the actual landing didn't happen until 1969, two years after this film was made. The flat screens on which he and his parents perform their daily tasks (a technology that would also surface in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey the following year) might also look strikingly familiar to we denizens of the 21st century. (Certainly the way James watches cartoons on one screen while his recorded lectures play on another will look familiar to today's parents and educators.) But many other aspects of the Philco-Ford future won't: even though the year 2000 is also retro now, the Shores' clothes and decor look more late-60s than late-90s.

In this and other ways, Year 1999 AD resembles a parody of the techno-optimistic shorts made by postwar corporate America, so much so that Snopes put up a page confirming its veracity. "Many visionaries who tried to forecast what daily life would be like for future generations made the mistake of simply projecting existing technologies as being bigger, faster, and more powerful," writes Snopes' David Mikkelson. Still, Year 1999 AD does a decent job of predicting the uses of technology to come in daily life: "Concepts such as 'fingertip shopping,' an 'electronic correspondence machine,' and others envisioned in this video anticipate several innovations that became commonplace within a few years of 1999: e-commerce, webcams, online bill payment and tax filing, electronic funds transfers (EFT), home-based laser printers, and e-mail."

Even twenty years after 1999, many of these visions have yet to materialize: "Split-second lunches, color-keyed disposable dishes," pronounces the narrator as the Shores sit down to a meal, "all part of the instant society of tomorrow, a society of leisure and taken-for-granted comforts." But as easy as it is to laugh at the notion that "life will be richer, easier, healthier as Space-Age dreams come true," the fact remains that, like the Shores, we now really do have computer programs that let us communicate and do our shopping, but that also tell us what to eat and when to exercise. What would the minds behind Year 1999 AD make of my watching their film on my personal screen on a subway train, amid hundreds of riders all similarly equipped? "If the computerized life occasionally extracts its pound of flesh," says the narrator, "it holds out some interesting rewards." Few statements about 21st-century have turned out to be as prescient.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Secret Student Group Who Took on the Nazis: An Introduction to “The White Rose”

Lately, young people standing up against oppressive regimes have faced unrelenting streams of ridicule, abuse, and worse: some have even lost their lives in mysterious circumstances that recall the tragic fates of those who battled racism in the U.S. south decades ago. Though it’s cold consolation to the bereaved and harassed, it at least remains the case today that activists who speak out can count on varying, but vocal levels of support, and they will find celebrities and politicians, whether cynical or well-meaning, to amplify (or co-opt) their message.

We can and should draw parallels between 20th-century European fascism and the 21st-century’s fascist turn. But the above situation could never have obtained in Nazi Germany of the 1930s and 40s. Anti-Nazi points of view were banned even for entertainment purposes. Circulating them would almost certainly result in execution. Ordinary Germans may have also vented their spleens at dissenters, but they did so with full assurance that those people would be crushed by the government, and that no one would stand up for them, not even to posture.

It was in this paralyzing climate of terror that the student members of The White Rose, a secretive, anonymous group of activists, began distributing leaflets denouncing Hitler and Nazism. “At a time when a sarcastic remark could constitute treason,” notes the TED-Ed lesson above, the strident language “was unprecedented.” Most of the leaflets were written by Hans Scholl, as the short, animated video—scripted by scholar Iseult Gillespie—informs us. Just a few years earlier, Scholl had been an enthusiastic member of the Hitler Youth, and his sister Sophie, who joined him in The White Rose, had been a member of the League of German Girls.

In 1936, when Hans witnessed a mass Nazi rally for the first time, he began to seriously question his life choices. Sophie had been entertaining her own doubts. Their parents, both increasingly concerned about the Nazi threat, were very supportive. The Scholl family had secretly listened to foreign broadcasts and learned “shocking truths” about what was happening in their country. While at the University of Munich, Hans “started reading anti-Nazi sermons,” writes Erin Blakemore at Smithsonian, “and attending classes with Kurt Huber, a psychology and philosophy professor whose lectures included veiled criticisms of the regime.”

Hans was drafted into the army as a medic, where he witnessed abuses against Jewish prisoners and heard about the concentration camps. When he returned to medical school at the University of Munich, he met several friends who shared his outrage. In 1939, The White Rose printed its first leaflets, spreading them all over Munich. “Adopt passive resistance,” they urged, inspiring Germans to sabotage the war effort. “Block the functioning of this atheistic war machine before it is too late. Before the last city is a heap of rubble. Before the last youth in our nation bleeds to death.”

Many more leaflets followed. (Sophie would not discover them and join the group until after their activities began.) “The White Rose mailed the pamphlets to random people they found in the phone book,” writes Blakemore. They “took them in suitcases to other cities, and left them in phone booths. They also painted graffiti on the walls of the University of Munich with slogans like ‘Freedom!’ and ‘Hitler the Mass Murderer!’” It was the first time public dissent against the Nazis had taken hold. “The society's work quickly spread to other cities, with some of its literature even showing up in Austria.”

In 1943, Allied planes dropped tens of thousands of The White Rose’s leaflets over Nazi Germany. News of them “even reached concentrations camps and prisons,” the video notes. Soon afterward, the Scholls and their friend Christoph Probst were arrested by the Gestapo. (Read a moving account of their arrest and trial at the Jewish Virtual Library.) The three were put on show trial and executed by guillotine. Later, their professor, Kurt Huber and other members of The White Rose were also beheaded.

The identities of The White Rose would not be known until after the war. They have since become heroes to anti-fascists and activists around the world, and their call for passive resistance echoes in one of their final leaflets: “We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace!” In spite of the risks, which they all knew, the Scholls and their allies chose to act, cautiously, but decisively, against a regime they finally saw to be a terrible evil.

To learn more about The White Rose, explore these books: The White Rose (1970), A Noble Treason (1979), and An Honourable Defeat (1994).

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Yale Presents an Archive of 170,000 Photographs Documenting the Great Depression

dorothea lange

During the Great Depression, The Farm Security Administration—Office of War Information (FSA-OWI) hired photographers to travel across America to document the poverty that gripped the nation, hoping to build support for New Deal programs being championed by F.D.R.'s administration.

Legendary photographers like Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Arthur Rothstein took part in what amounted to the largest photography project ever sponsored by the federal government. All told, 170,000 photographs were taken, then catalogued back in Washington DC. The Library of Congress became their eventual resting place.

walker evans

We first mentioned this historic project back in 2012, when the New York Public Library put a relatively small sampling of these images online. But now we have bigger news.

Yale University has launched Photogrammar, a sophisticated web-based platform for organizing, searching, and visualizing these 170,000 historic photographs.

arthur rothstein

The Photogrammar platform gives you the ability to search through the images by photographer. Do a search for Dorothea Lange's photographs, and you get over 3200 images, including the now iconic photograph at the bottom of this post.

Photogrammar also offers a handy interactive map that lets you gather geographical information about 90,000 photographs in the collection.

And then there's a section called Photogrammar Labs where innovative visualization techniques and data experiments will gradually shed new light on the image archive.

According to Yale, the Photogrammar project was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Directed by Laura Wexler, the project was undertaken by Yale’’s Public Humanities Program and its Photographic Memory Workshop.

rothstein 3
Top image: A migrant agricultural worker in Marysville migrant camp, trying to figure out his year's earnings. Taken in California in 1935 by Dorothea Lange.

Second image: Allie Mae Burroughs, wife of cotton sharecropper. Photo taken in Hale County, Alabama in 1935 by Walker Evans.

Third image: Wife and children of sharecropper in Washington County, Arkansas. By Arthur Rothstein. 1935.

Fourth image: Wife of Negro sharecropper, Lee County, Mississippi. Again taken by Arthur Rothstein in 1935.

Bottom image: Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Taken by Dorothea Lange in Nipomo, California, 1936.

lange bottom

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Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in 2014.

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Hear the Very Moment When World War I Came to an End

Robert Graves' poem “Armistice Day, 1918” begins with a riot of sound in a town in North East England. “What’s all this hubbub and yelling, / Commotion and scamper of feet,” he writes, “With ear-splitting clatter of kettles and cans, / Wild laughter down Mafeking Street?” The poem grows somber, then embittered, ending in a chilling silence for the “boys who were killed in the trenches, / Who fought with no rage and no rant.” It’s a familiar contrast from much World War I poetry—the hooting civilian crowds and the grim, silent soldiers counting their losses.

One project, created as part of the 100th anniversary of the Armistice last year, gave us a different take on this WWI theme of sound and silence —using innovative techniques from 1918 that turned the final shelling of the war into visual data, then translating that data back into sound a century later. Rather than celebration, the “ear-splitting clatter” is the sound of mass death, and the silence, though surely “uneasy,” as Matt Novak writes, must also have been revelatory.

In the “graphic record” of the Armistice, just below, we can “see” the deafening sounds of war and the first three silent seconds of its end, at 11 A.M. November 11th, 1918. The film strip records six seconds of vibration from six different sources, as the graphic, from the Army Corps of Engineers, informs us. “The broken character of the records on the left indicates great artillery activity; the lack of irregularities on the right indicates almost complete cessation of firing.”

You might notice a couple little breaks in one line on the right—likely the result of an exuberant “doughboy firing his pistol twice close to one of the recording microphones on the front in celebration of the dawn of peace.” But this was 1918—field recording technology barely existed, though a few battlefield attempts were made (at least one survives). The “microphones” in question were actually “barrels of oil dug into the ground,” notes Jason Daley at Smithsonian.

This technique, called “sound ranging,” worked by registering vibration, similar to a seismograph's operation, and helped special units locate enemy fire, using “photographic film to visually record noise intensity.” The film above was part of the centenary exhibition at London’s Imperial War Museum, which also commissioned sound designers Coda to Coda to reconstruct the dramatic moment with an audio interpretation. At the top of the post, hear what the seconds before and after the Armistice likely sounded like, as recorded on the American front at the River Moselle.

Listening to the seconds of the war’s end from the battlefield perspective—rather than streets filled with cheering crowds—is rather chilling, “a sudden reprieve from the staccato of weapons blasting,” Novak writes. The “graphic record” of the Armistice also shows us “just how horrifically precise and cruel war can be.” The slaughter could have been stopped in an instant, by the mutual decree of world leaders, at maybe any time during those harrowing four years.

On November 11 at 11 A.M., “the guns fell silent,” writes the Imperial War Museum, and “a new world began.” But as artists like Graves remind us, for the returning maimed and traumatized soldiers and the hundreds of thousands of bereaved families, the war didn’t end when the noise finally stopped.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Paul McCartney is Dead Conspiracy Theory, Explained

Hoaxes used to be fun, I imagine, before the internet turned them into weapons of mass disinformation. One shudders to think what kind of lunacy might have resulted had the Paul McCartney-is-dead-and-has-been-replaced-by-a-lookalike hoax first spread on Facebook instead of college newspapers, local radio stations, and good-old word of mouth. The hoax is emblematic not only of how misinformation spread differently fifty years ago, but also how the counterculture figured out information warfare, and used it to produce reams of satirical proto-viral content.

Whether the author of the original 1969 article—“Is Beatle Paul McCartney Dead?,” from the Drake University student newspaper the Times-Delphic—intended to fool the public hardly matters. His speculation reads like parody, like a star chart crossed with lurid tabloid gossip that, through a strange twist of fate created a network of people who believed that Paul was killed in a 1966 car crash and the band found an imposter named Billy Shears to replace him.

It should be noted that Paul McCartney is very much alive and has not been played by an impersonator for fifty years. There are no “two sides” to this story. There is the life of Paul McCartney and there is a strange and amusing rumor that never harmed anyone, except the Paul McCartney of its imagination. "Paul is Dead" ranks highly among “music’s most WTF conspiracy theories,” also the title of the Rolling Stone video above, which aims to explain “the original insane rock n’ roll conspiracy theory.”

The Beatles had a lot of fun with the conspiracy, doubly hoaxing their fans by playing along occasionally. McCartney responded with his classic wit: “If I were dead, I’d be the last to know it.” But publicly confirming or denying Paul McCartney’s body snatching didn't matter. Like those who claimed Stanley Kubrick staged the moon landing and left clues in The Shining, true believers found evidence everywhere they looked.

The cover of Sgt. Pepper’s supposedly represents Paul’s funeral; his doppelgänger allegedly wears a patch with the letters O.P.D.—officially pronounced dead.” (It’s actually O.P.P., “Ontario Provincial Police.”); lyrics played backwards spell it out: “Paul is Dead.” As with most crackpot theories, there is one crucial missing element: motive. Why would the band not only cover up Paul’s death but leave trails of breadcrumbs on every subsequent record?

Why does the villain explain their entire plan to the hero as soon as they get the upper hand? Why do killers leave detailed, incriminating documents called “The Plan” on their hard drives on Dateline? Who can say? In the world of weird conspiracy theories, conspirators are compelled to place cryptic but decipherable clues all over the place. It’s like they want to be caught, or it’s like conspiracy fans desperately want to believe they do. Either way, as far as conspiracy theories go, “Paul is Dead” earns its “WTF” status. It also bears the distinction of never actually having involved anyone’s death.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The History of Europe from 400 BC to the Present, Animated in 12 Minutes

What does the future of Europe look like? Geopolitical times such as these do make one ponder such questions as, say, "In what shape (if any) will the European Union make it through this century?" But as any historian of Europe knows, that continent has seldom had an easy time of it: European history is a history of conquests, rebellions, alliances made and broken, and of course, wars aplenty — a major piece of the rationale behind the creation of organizations like the European Union in the first place. As a result, the division of Europe by the many groups and individuals who have laid claim to pieces of it has, over the past 2500 years, seldom held steady for long, as you can see on the animated map above.

The Roman Empire did manage to paint the map red, literally, in the second and third centuries, but during all eras before and after it looks as multicolored as it was politically disunited. In earlier times, Europe was home to peoples with names like the Gauls, Iberians, Celts, and Scythians, as well as empires like the Achaemenid and Seleucid Empire.

After the First World War, though — and the dissolution of such entities as the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary, and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth — the labels start to look more familiar. Most of us remember the event marked by the last big change to this map, the end of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. (Many of us even spent years thereafter in classrooms whose world maps still depicted the USSR as one mighty bloc.)

The map's animation begins in 400 BC and ends in 2017 with Europe as a collection of nation-states, each of which we now regard as not just politically but culturally distinct. But watching the full two-and-a-half-millennia time-lapse reminds us that every country in Europe has broken off from, joined with, or otherwise descended from another place, indeed many other places, most of which have long since ceased to exist. In the 21st century, one often hears Europe described as essentially unchanging, stuck in its ways, ossified, and an afternoon spent watching the proceedings of European Union bureaucracy would hardly disabuse anyone of that notion. But then, wouldn't observers of Europe have felt the same way back in the heyday of Rome?

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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